tv [untitled] April 6, 2012 9:00pm-9:30pm EDT
it's the ninth version of the first lady's exhibit since it began in 1913. we're almost 100 years old and the longest lived exhibit of the smithsonian institution. >> and this iteration just opened up. so tell us the concept behind it. >> we tried a few new things in here. the challenge the first ladies collection and exhibit is always to balance, to balance the great interest in the dresses and the china with other kinds of stories about the first ladies. i always hate to say marry. they talk about marrying the president and first ladies' exhibits, but to marry the two things so you get a fuller picture of the first ladies, but still get to see the things you really want to come to see, which are the beautiful dresses and the lovely china. so we tried a different arrangement in here. and partially that's the color scheme. this is the first time we have used this palette of grays and whites. and the idea was to really make the objects stand out.
the only color in the exhibition, and it's a very colorful show, comes from the objects, not from the paint on the walls. and we really feel highlight the gowns and china for first time really make them the star. >> talk more about your role, your responsibility in creating this latest edition. >> the first lady's collection began in 1913 by two volunteer curators who were washington satellites who had an in at the smithsonian. and they wanted to put women in the museum. there really weren't exhibitions dedicated to women. and so they started really a costume collection. and the idea was to show women's costume throughout time. but a descendant of james monroe. so a hook was born. we'll use the first ladies. so they sought out the descendants of the presidents and first ladies and asked for clothing.
by the time they opened the show, they amassed a pretty good amount. by 1932 they had something to represent every former first lady. but it did create what i call the smithsonian's definition of first lady, which is not necessarily the spouse, the wife of the president. it's the person who played the official role of white house hostess. so that can be -- usually it's a wife, but it can be a daughter, a daughter-in-law, a niece, a family friend. and it's been all of those things over time. and the exhibition was actually called the featuring the cleting of the mistresses of the white house. >> and there are some examples in this exhibit today of those that weren't the spouse of the president. talk about them a little bit. >> yes. as i look behind me to see who is in this particular exhibition, or in that case, this case is mostly wives. but in the china and in the back section, you'll see dolley madison. dolley madison served as the first lady for the widowed james
the widowed thomas jefferson. his daughter would also serve as host periodically. but so did mrs. madison, who was the secretary of state's wife. because in mixed company at the time, you had to have a hostess. you could not entertain ladies unless there was a hostess. so there was a real need to have a woman in the white house to perform that function. because so much even now, so much of washington life is carried on not on the floor of the house, not on the floor of the senate, not in official places, but at parties. in formal gatherings where you can talk in a calmer, more casual manner. all the women of washington really were responsible for keeping those networks open and that life happening. >> so is that sort of the point of showing the dress, that there is much more meaning behind the dress? >> there is more meaning behind the dress. one we show it because it's
beautiful and people love them. but it does say something about the woman there is a real question. why do we care? why are we interested in what the first lady wears, other than if you're just a fan of fashion, why do we care what the first lady wears? but we look to her clothing for clues about what she is like as a person, about what the administration may be like, both in its style. is it formal? is it informal? is it extravagant? is it simple? and what they're possibly something about her politics or the administration's politics. is it american-made? do you proudly say that you only wear american designers and american-made clothing? carolyn harrison, whose beautiful burgundy gown made a point of only wearing american fabrics and american-made clothes. a lot of first ladies have worn american clothing. if you look to the back, you'll see a beautiful dress of eleanor roosevelt which is actually her first inaugural gown. eleanor roosevelt had a busy life, and she made a point of
saying busy women also like to buy their clothes off the rack. but she also stressed you shouldn't by clothes from sweatshops. so her politics also came into her clothing. >> what is the oldest gown? >> the oldest gown in the collection is actually martha washington's. it's not on display right now. it has been on display for a long sustained amount of time. so it's having a rest right now. in this gallery, when we round the corner, the oldest dress will be dolley madison's. >> fast forward to today. michelle obama. she donated hers personally? >> actually, mrs. obama came and presented the dress and the jewelry and the shoes. but they were actually donated, and she -- it's interesting. this is the first time we had the designers donate. and mrs. obama had them donate these pieces. so jason woo and jimmy choo donated the pieces. they're donated. when you see the label, donated
by jason woo in honor of michelle obama. and mrs. obama came to present the pieces to the museum. >> what goes into deciding which dress to wear? and are they thinking about the influence that will have on their husband's administration? >> i think -- i think we like it to maybe be a little more political than it probably is. when we did -- there is a video playing in this exhibition, and we were lucky enough to interview rosalynn carter and laura bush about the dresses that they chose, thinking maybe there was symbolism. and mrs. carter in reality for sentimental reasons wore a dress again that she had worn when her husband was made governor of georgia. and mrs. bush just remembers collaborating with the designer michael faircloth. and you wanted a pretty party dress. what women -- the first lady wants it to be beautiful. she wants it to be comfortable. she wants it to be appropriate. i think appropriate is the word when first ladies are dealing
with clothes. they want to be appropriate for the occasion, appropriate for their age, appropriate the circumstance, and i think appropriate as a symbol of the united states, because we still do look at the first lady as representing women in the united states. even when she is not functioning in duty hours, she represents the united states. >> let's take a look at some of the first ladies, about four of them that you featured here at the exhibit and talk about their roles. >> wonderful. it's this way. >> before you walk into this room, though, you have a quote from first lady michelle obama where she is talking about that there is no formal job description for this unofficial role of the first lady. talk about that quote and how you think that impacts the first lady's decision of how they go about doing this job, if you
will? >> the quote itself really wraps up in a lot of ways what this exhibit is about. and oddly, we found it very close to the end. but it set so well in here, because it really is an amorphous position there is no job description. there is no official duty. each first lady remakes the jump job based on her own interests, the needs of the administration and the expectations of the american public, all of which can aid her or hinder her at any point in time. it's a trial and error kind of thing. and each first lady has come up with her own version of the job. yet they play off of each other. they build on each example before them and each one creates a new example to follow. there. >> are no rules? but are there boundaries? but there are boundaries there is always a tension about how politically involved a first lady can be.
that sort of who elected you, what are you talking about when we can't see you. i think from the public. and we've read in varying books from presidential advisers themselves, this is the person who sees him first thing in the morning and last thing at night. the last words he is going to hear. there is always an interest whether the first lady's goals and stories about whether the first lady's goals and ambitions are the same as the president's. and if they're running in sync and if she is reflecting the administration. many first ladies have been able to dovetail their interests with the administration's interests and really work hand in glove with the president. to put forward with the president to put forward the administration's goals with her as a part of that administration. >> we'll talk more about how these four first ladies individually walk that tightrope, but tell us why these four and what were you trying to
do in this room? >> well, the four first ladies you'll notice as you'll see the dates as we go through, it's roughly 50 years between. we wanted to show different points in time because we very much wanted to show the first lady's relationship to that period and to women in that time period. edith mayo who was my predecessor as curator and my mentor as first ladies curator did a groundbreaking show called first ladies' political role in public image, and it really looked at first ladies in the context of history and the roles played by the first ladies. so we wanted to take another step with that. and this time instead of looking at roles specifically as hostess, as political partner, to look at how each different woman summed that all up and combined those roles what they stressed, what they did. so looked at almost as case studies. we also wanted to give you a more intimate view of each one of these first ladies. the things that you'll see are
the kinds of things that people say, be they a piece of china, a watch, a scrap of fabric. it's the kind of things we save to remember our lives. each of these we call the high boys show memories and we save things in our bookcase or our credenza or china cabinet, we wanted to show the things that people save and use each one to link to a memory and tell a little bit of a story. you won't come away with the whole story of this first lady but give you a good idea of what she was like and hopefully go on and find out about the rest of the sisterhood. >> so dolley madison, what kind of first lady was she? what does the story tell us? >> dolley madison was the first first lady to really establish the role of the political hostess. james madison is a serious man and a shy man, and dolley madison is his front. dolley madison is the person who sets up, has the parties. james is in a corner. and she can have everyone coming
who needs to talk to him coming to talk to him. has a wonderful environment she stirs up. support for her husband. she doesn't create enemies for her husband and she's a real master of that sort of -- it's often called the parlor politics of the time period, where women are setting up their own networks of social links that keep informang. dolley madison has her finger on the pulse of what's being said in washington and can bring that information back to her husband. she can relay that information out to other people. she has a series of friends. she finds jobs for friends of friends. it creates a support group for her husband and for her husband's administration. >> what does her bookshelf if you will here in this part tell us about who she is? what are some of the artifacts in there? >> some of the most amazing artifacts, i think the one that
just really resonates is the piece of burned wood, that's a piece of timber burned in the war of 1812 in the white house, and it came to us as a collector. it references -- well, dolley madison didn't save it. what it references is dolley madison's heroism, she was the one who saved the portrait of george washington and other pieces from the white house. that she was the last one there as the british were advancing, and really left just a little in front of the advancing british troops who burnt the white house. >> in 1814. >> in 1814, although we call it the war of 1812, and all that was left of the skeleton of the white house which you can see in the graphic behind the dresses. it's a period picture of the burnt white house. >> and her actions following that to keep the capital in washington? >> there was talk about moving to the capital to what seemed to be an easier place, somebody that didn't have to be rebuilt. dolley madison made it back to
washington in four days, rented the octagon house and set up shop there. and proceeded to have parties again, have gatherings and to make a statement that said we're here. we survived and we're staying here, and began the rebuilding of the presidency. >> the role of women at this time in political rights for women in dolley madison's era. >> women had played possibly a looser role one might say during the revolution. women's rights began to be curtailed a little bit more after the revolution. a light of people's rights were curtailed with the constitution. women don't have a legal identity apart from their husbands, married women, so they can't vote and they don't have an independent legal standing. so they have to find parlor politics. they have to find a way to maneuver around that to have influence within that sphere, which really comes through influencing the power players.
and creating these back channels and this second network that can influence thins that are going on and really keep washington moving. >> let's move on to mary lincoln. what's her story? >> mary lincoln comes in at a very vex time. she's looking to dolley madison and thinking this is what the first lady is supposed to be. i'm going to do this. i'm going to be a political hostess, i'm going to have this influence and be an adviser to my husband, and a war starts. so she has to retool what she is doing now. but following this idea of dolley madison and the hostess, she believes that she needs to show a powerful presidency, do her part to portray a powerful presidency that foreign governments should support in this war. you want to be on our side, not the confederacy side, to demonstrate to the union that the government is powerful, the leader is powerful and that things are progressing as they normally would. >> how did she do that? >> well, she redecked the white
house. when they moved in, the white house was a mess. somebody compared it to a third rate hotel. so, she did a lot of redecoration, rebuilding of the white house. it was considered to be very -- a very successful redecoration, but it went over budget. she bought beautiful new china. you see it in the china second, with the purple china with the arms of the united states, seal of the united states. but in wartime this didn't go over quite as well. it was seen as being extravagant. so she retooled. and instead of having large parties, she had handshake days. these were receptions that the public could come and see the president. but then some people criticized that because it was a little too egalitarian, it wasn't the dignity of the president. poor mary couldn't seem to win. she wanted to be and had always been an adviser to her husband, but this is a new arena and a bigger issue. he was facing larger problems and so she didn't have the contact with her husband and the
influence that she had wanted to have, so that was a disappointment to her, although she did play a role in his re-election. she wrote letters to state leaders to try and have them support her husband. she tried to have influence. it just wasn't the right environment for the first lady that she was desperately trying to be. >> let's talk about the dress. who made her gown. >> elizabeth keckly made that dress. she was an african-american seamstress. she had been a slave. she purchased her own freedom through money she made as a seamstress. she moved to washington, d.c. and set up very successful business. she was also the dressmaker for the wife of jefferson davis who asked her to go south with them when the confederacy moved to richmond, asked her to go to richmond. she chose not to. she interviewed basically for a position as mrs. lincoln's dressmaker, and the two became much more than client and entrepreneur. they really became friends.
an equal friendship to be sure, but they became friends and she was mary lincoln's closest confidante all that time in the white house. >> some of the other artifacts in the mary lincoln section. the watch? >> the watch. we talk about in this section about mary lincoln and her philanthropy, because she was an active supporter of the sanitary commission to raise money for wounded soldiers. she visited hospitals. and that watch was actually won by her husband for giving the most money to a -- as contribution to a sanitary fair, so one talks about her philanthropy, but it also raises a wonderful image of an organizer of a fair saying i need you to give money. >> anything else about the mary lincoln bookshelf that is notable? >> i think a wonderful piece of the bookshelf references elizabeth keckly as well and it shows their friendship. mrs. lincoln, mrs. keckly established the contraband aid
association which was to raise money and help slaves, former slaves who had crossed the lines and made to it washington, d.c. mrs. lincoln gave money. and supported elizabeth keckly in her efforts to do this. certainly gave her moral support. and there's a beautiful little wooden inkwell when abraham lincoln died mrs. keckly asked for a memento of the president and mrs. lincoln gave her this inkwell. there are also beautiful pieces. we all associate mary lincoln because the stories one remembers of mary lincoln were the elegance and the spending and the possessions and we do have some beautiful pieces that came through the family. a beautiful diamond and gold enameled wristwatch, china. but also the kind of thing you save, a scrap of fabric from the redecoration of the red room that was saved by the decorating firm and eventually found its way to the museum so we know -- we get a little bit of an idea of the fabric that was used in the room. and what her style was.
>> edith roosevelt, what was her style? >> edith rose vel. well, edith roosevelt redid the entire white house. the white house that we know first came into being, came to be the white in white house. and edith roosevelt -- and theodore roosevelt wanted it to evoke its sort of colonial roots and so it's a very federal, formal white house. the beautiful pillars. the great entryway. the new grand staircase that she put in. it also helps to bolster -- the roosevelts brought in the imperial presidency, a much more regal, formal worldwide presidency. this is when america really moves into the greater world as a power. and this white house was built to command respect for that and to show the power of that presidency. and mrs. roosevelt was in charge of the decoration of that white house. >> and she added a first ladies portrait gallery? >> she did.
she consolidated the portraits of the first ladies. commissioned hers to be added to it and established a first ladies portrait gallery on the ground floor of the white house. >> politically, policywise, what is she known for? >> she's a first lady that steps away from policy. certainly is someone that can restrain her husband, and i'm sure had words to say for her husband, to her husband, an opinion. but she keeps very private with him. she had a young large family, and she was concentrating on that family. she wanted time for her family and for her husband. and so she actually we think of in a lot of ways as one of the first managerial first ladies. someone who starts sort of professionalize the role. mrs. roosevelt wanted time, so she decided what things she was going to delegate to someone else. so she has a social secretary who takes care of press. there's huge press interest in her family. they're great cover material and great photographs.
she didn't like that prying of the press, she knew she would have to accommodate them and she and her social secretary would release certain pictures, posed pictures. you can't do stories and take pictures, we will release information and we will release photographs. so she sort of had the first press secretary. >> i was going to say, is that the first time that happened? >> yes. 24 is the first time that something approached a formal press secretary's office for the first lady. she delegates a lot of household duties. she has the caterers doing food. she doesn't have the white house doing food for large events. she has chief ushers take care of household arrangements. she knows what's going on, and she approves everything, but she has other people handling a lot of detail work. she concentrates putting the white house back at the center of washington social life. over the last few presidencies, it had moved away from the white house. mrs. roosevelt with two hands eased it back to the white
house. and had meetings with cabinet wives to compare social schedules to make sure that nothing was impeding or competing with the white house's particular social agenda. >> so what was the impact of all of that? >> mrs. roosevelt had a control over washington that i think some of the more recent, prior first ladies, had not. she formalized things. she had a definite code of behavior and if you did not follow her code of behavior, you didn't really exist in her washington. and she did bring a power and a grandeur back to the entertaining. the visible side of the white house that bolsters theodore roosevelt's forays into international politics and to bring power back to the presidency. >> lady bird johnson. i have to say, i am from texas. lady bird johnson is one of my favorite first ladies. she is the first first lady to announce her own political -- not political agenda, but her own inaugural agenda.
she announces during -- leading up to the 1965 inauguration, she goes public with what is going to be her agenda for her time as first lady and she says she's going to concentrate on beautification which really now we'd call environmentalism. mrs. johnson was not thrilled with the word beautification, but it was a doable world. she was going to concentrate on the great society, on helping her husband's efforts to promote the great society, and on working on his eventual presidential library. and mrs. johnson's east wing really works with the west wing. she -- so she's doing environmental things. she's at a national park talking about the environment. we have a scarf in here that i love, and i've never seen the connection before, but the scarf promotes the discover america program. the discover america program is something that the west wing is
putting out and it's an effort to keep american tourism dollars in america, so it's encouraging you to vacation and tour america. so mrs. johnson can promote that at the same time she is promoting environmentalism. >> is this all part of the great society agenda? >> yes, in a large way, all of it is. it's to make a better america, an america that's more livable for all of us. so, yeah. and it's all tied in. what your environment is like has to do with what your life is like, what your situation -- your financial situation is like. what the quality of your life. and so it all ties. i think for her it all ties together. she's a first lady who says you have to find something to do that makes your heart sing. find the thing that makes your heart sing and follow that. >> as the first lady. >> as the first lady. life in general, but as the first lady. >> did she lobby for these projects? >> she did lobby. she -- for the highway billboard
act, to take billboards off of national highways, mrs. johnson actually met with west wing staff and had her own call sheet of people to -- to directly call and lobby. and everybody knew that mrs. johnson had influence and mrs. johnson quietly, you know, could work behind the scenes. this was a little too far in front and there was some backlash over that and she after that retreated to a more veiled, behind-the-scenes kind of lobbying. but it's also mrs. johnson that takes the first campaign swing, solo campaign, whistle stop tour. the lady bird special is a trip she takes into the south. during the 1964 election campaign, lyndon johnson is signing the civil rights act. he's losing support in south and mrs. johnson alone obviously with a staff and companions but makes a trip through the south, stopping to speak to the public.
strong-arming in an, oh, so polite way governors and leaders in that state to meet with her. and speaks to the public, saying here is my point of view, and takes some abuse from the public, and then will say, well, you've had your turn. i've listened to you and i hope you will listen to me. knowing that southern gentlemen have to let you -- a southern gentlemen is going to have to listen to and greet and be polite to a southern lady. >> the dress, tell us how she picked the design for this. >> it's a wonderful dress, a beautiful yellow, made by john moore, a texas dress designer, and it's actually mrs. johnson who is, of course, the wife of a senator, the wife of a member of congress, used to do constituent tours at the smithsonian institution. she would bring people to the first ladies exhibit when she was touring them through washington. she was familiar with the exhibit. when she says the beautiful embroidery and the fabrics,
they're beautiful but they won't last. so, she purposely picks a dress that she thought in style and in construction would stand the test of time, so it's a beautifully simple dress. and we thank mrs. johnson because it has held up very well. >> what happens when a woman would be -- if a woman would be elected president? we came close in 2008. >> we'd like to say when a woman is elected president, not if. we take it as a given. it's just a question of when. but it is an interesting question. people ask a lot, will we put her husband's suit in the exhibition? and it takes us back to i said in the beginning that the smithsonian definition of first lady. we'll have to wait and see who in that administration plays the role of the official hostess, the role that the first lady has played. and there's no telling who that will be. will it be the husband? will it be the host in his own home as surely she will be the
hostess. but who will be carrying out one of those duties? will it be one of them? will it be a daughter? will it be a professional job? we just don't know. we're waiting to see and then to figure out what we do next in this exhibition where we take it forward. and i think even more interestingly after -- when a man is, again, president, what will happen to the first ladies' role after that? will it revert? or will it move in a direction that is maybe more free to the woman who then becomes first lady. >> lisa kathleen graddy, thank you very much. >> thank you. >> you can watch american artifacts and other american history tv programs any time by visiting our website, cspan.org/history. this weekend marks the anniversary of the bloodiest battle to be fought during the civil war. up to that point, the battle of shiloh, with almost 24,000 casualties. and we'll tour the battlefield with chief park ranger stacey allen saturday at